Browning. Browning, after Gus Van Sant, is the second director to make the list without a top 500 film. For the consensus critics list (I’ll get to it more below) – that film is Freaks. I’ve seen it- multiple times, just don’t think it’s on that level and I believe the consensus to be incorrect. Browning’s case is that that all of his six film in the archives below (especially the top five) bare his stamp of authorship. It’s so rare and refreshing in the 1930’s and 1940’s Hollywood system to see an auteur making unapologetically one-person driven films. Browning wasn’t reduced to simply having to hide subtext in Hollywood films (and I’m not knocking those auteurs that did)—his passions are clear and sitting there on the surface (which is maybe why Freaks was banned in many places for a long time) text and on the screen.

Best film: Freaks. It is a very strong film—though I found most of the creatively and ingenuity (and it is here in spades) to be in the narrative and the casting—not particularly in the filmmaking. I hope I’m wrong.

total archiveable films: 6

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films:  0

top 100 films of the decade:  2 (Freaks, The Unknown)

Lon Chaney is the “man with 1000 faces”- and the perfect male muse for Browning’s world- 3 of Browning’s 6 archiveable films star Chaney

most overrated: Sadly it has to be Freaks. The TSPDT consensus has it as the #258 film of all-time and I don’t have a spot for it in my top 500—that’s a profound disconnect.

most underrated:  Dracula. Somehow this film doesn’t land in the TSPDT top 1000 (Browning’s only other film on their list is The Unknown at #979 which is a fine spot for it). My guess is many critics can’t talk about the film without talking about how it is not Murnau’s Nosferatu (of which it is a remake)- and that hurts it.

  • The first 15-20 minutes are superb— the introduction tracking shot of Lugosi as Dracula- getting out of his coffin- is amazing as are the series of establishing shots getting closer and closer to the castle
  • Shot by wonderful DP Freund—shot Metropolis and worked with Murnau—I go back and forth about the choice to spotlight Lugosi’s eyes. It’s effective- which I think matters in horror especially- but it does feel a little like cheating
  • Towards the end, especially the scenes with an awful Van Helsing, elements of the film are filled with heavy dialogue and feel very early 1930’s stagey
  • It’s remarkable how good the film is choosing to remake (and one so close at that in terms of plot) the Murnau masterpiece Nosferatu from 1922. Artistically it is not close to Maurnau’s film.
  • Gorgeous shot of mise-en-scene interior of castle in ruins when Lugosi first speaks
  • Lugosi is not a great actor but is perfect here
  • Atmospheric opening
  • Highly Recommend– top 10 of the year quality border
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Shot by wonderful DP Freund—shot Metropolis and worked with Murnau
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the choice to spotlight Lugosi’s eyes

gem I want to spotlight: The Devil Doll

  • It’s an oddity, directed by the great Tod Browning and at least partially written by von Stroheim the film, largely, centers upon Lionel Barrymore running around in drag
  • It’s a morality play like most of Browning’s work and focuses on deformities— odd how it connects with 2017’s Downsizing with Alexander Payne- the scientists here are trying to shrink people down to conserve the earth’s resources
  • Wife scientist has bride of Frankenstein hair
  • It’s a revenge film like much of Browning’s work
  • Wipe editing
  • Some of the FX stuff is pretty slick—working with miniatures and oversized objects
  • The off-beat positive ending seems off giving some of Barrymore’s ugly motives—not a place to start a Browning study but I have it in the archives because I think it’s revisiting
  • Recommend

stylistic innovations/traits:   Browning’s oeuvre consists of films about the so-called “outcasts” of society (Lon Chaney- the man of 1000 faces is the star in 3 of his 6 archvieable films). It’s why Freaks is his strongest film even if Dracula may offer a bit more visually. He, along with James Whale, are the two founders of Hollywood horror.  Browning’s films are mostly morality plays that focus on those outside the norm, often with deformities, distortions, oddities and the carnival/circus. There is some very nice silhouette work in his films (all are in black and white) and they typically run from 60-70 minutes. As I said in the opening, he’s one of the few auteurs in the 1930’s to have a clear identifiable worldview and bring it across without noticeable interruption or camouflaging.

top 10

  1. Freaks
  2. The Unknown
  3. Dracula
  4. The Unholy Three
  5. The Devil Doll
  6. West of Zanzibar

By year and grades

1925- The Unholy Three R
1927- The Unknown HR
1928- West of Zanzibar R
1931- Dracula HR
1932- Freaks HR
1936- The Devil Doll R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives